Russian court orders closure of country’s oldest human rights group

Supreme court ruling on Memorial is watershed moment in Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on independent thought

Analysis: Closure is part of rapid dismantling of civil society

Russia’s supreme court has ordered the closure of Memorial International, the country’s oldest human rights group, in a watershed moment in Vladimir Putin’s crackdown on independent thought.

The court ruled Memorial must be closed under Russia’s controversial “foreign agent” legislation, which has targeted dozens of NGOs and media outlets seen as critical of the government.

Memorial was founded in the late 1980s to document political repressions carried out under the Soviet Union, building a database of victims of the Great Terror and gulag camps. The Memorial Human Rights Centre, a sister organisation that campaigns for the rights of political prisoners and other causes, is also facing liquidation for “justifying terrorism and extremism”.

Memorial International’s closure marks an inflection point in Russia’s modern history, as efforts to publicise crimes under Soviet leaders such as Joseph Stalin have become taboo 30 years after the secret government archives were opened after the end of the Soviet Union. While not quite seeking a return to the Soviet past, Putin has become deeply sensitive to any criticism of it by groups including Memorial.

Genri Reznik, a lawyer who represented Memorial on Tuesday, called the decision to close it “political”, adding that the hearing reminded him of the Soviet show trials of the 1930s.

The decision also follows a sustained assault on Russian civil society this year that has led to opposition leaders such as Alexei Navalny being imprisoned, prominent activists and journalists fleeing the country, and NGOs and media outlets hit with fines and closures under Russia’s “foreign agents” and “undesirable” laws.

The judge, Alla Nazarova, ordered the organisation closed for “repeated” and “gross” violations of Russia’s foreign agent laws, a designation Memorial has called politically motivated but nonetheless claimed to have followed.

The decision will close the “Memorial International Historical, Educational, Charitable, and Human Rights Society, its regional branches and other structural units,” she said.

In his defence of the organisation, Reznik said: “The Memorial Society promotes the health of the nation. To eliminate this from the history of the country now means to contribute to the idea of ‘the state is always right’.”

The Interfax news agency quoted a lawyer for Memorial as saying it would appeal, both in Russia and at the European court of human rights.

The Russian prosecutor portrayed the organisation as a geopolitical weapon used by foreign governments to deprive modern Russians of taking pride in the achievements of the Soviet Union. Those arguments dovetail closely with the Kremlin’s use of Soviet history as a rallying point for society and reinterpretation of key historical moments in its confrontations with European countries.

“It is obvious that, by cashing in on the subject of political reprisals of the 20th century, Memorial is mendaciously portraying the USSR as a terrorist state and whitewashing and vindicating Nazi criminals having the blood of Soviet citizens on their hands,” said Alexei Zhafyarov, a representative of the Russian prosecutor general’s office, during the hearing.

“Why should we, the descendants of the victors, have to see the vindication of traitors to their homeland and Nazi henchmen? … Perhaps because someone pays for that. And this is the true reason why Memorial is so fiercely trying to disown its foreign agent status,” he continued.

About 100 supporters of the organisation gathered outside the court on Tuesday. Many chanted “shame” after the verdict was delivered. Police made several arrests.

Memorial’s leadership had hoped the broad public support for the group might save it from closure. At a previous hearing, the group submitted more than 127,000 signatures in support of the organisation, as well as the testimonies of those who had discovered the fates of their relatives thanks to gulag and other records uncovered by Memorial.

“The long-term activity of Memorial has always been aimed at restoring historical justice, preserving the memory of hundreds of thousands of victims during the years of repression, preventing such things now and in the future,” wrote the former Soviet president Mikhail Gorbachev and the Novaya Gazeta editor, Dmitry Muratov, in a joint statement last month. They called on prosecutors to recall their claim against Memorial.

The purge of Russia’s opposition and independent organisations has continued through the end of the year. In the past week a BBC Russian journalist announced he had fled the country after being named a “foreign agent” and realising he was being surveilled, and OVD-Info, a website that monitors arrests and court cases, was blocked as a “foreign agent”. Two former coordinators for Navalny’s nationwide political network were also arrested on extremism charges on Tuesday.

The daughter of Natalya Estemirova, a former Memorial board member murdered in Chechnya for her human rights work in 2009, wrote in response to the verdict: “My mother always used to say: ‘It can’t get any worse than this.’ Turns out it can.”


Andrew Roth in Moscow

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Russian court orders closure of another human rights group
Memorial Human Rights Centre liquidated a day after its sister group, Memorial, in assault on civil liberties

Andrew Roth in Moscow

29, Dec, 2021 @4:08 PM

Article image
Court cases threatening human rights group Memorial start in Russia
Cases under ‘foreign agents’ law mark attack on civil society and attempt to recast Soviet history

Andrew Roth in Moscow

24, Nov, 2021 @5:42 PM

Article image
Russian court orders new investigation into Politkovskaya's murder
Supreme court gives Russian authorities another chance to find the killer of the campaigning journalist shot dead three years ago

Luke Harding

03, Sep, 2009 @10:43 AM

Article image
Yukos takes Russia to human rights court in Strasbourg
Defunct oil company owned by jailed oligarch Mikhail Khordokovsksy claiming £65bn in compensation over bankruptcy

Luke Harding in Moscow

04, Mar, 2010 @1:01 PM

Article image
Putin approves law targeting journalists as 'foreign agents'
Move described by rights activists as scare tactic to stifle criticism of Russian government

Andrew Roth in Moscow

03, Dec, 2019 @9:35 AM

Article image
Heroes of 2014: Russian human rights group Memorial | Natalie Nougayrede
Natalie Nougayrede: For 25 years Memorial’s extraordinary activists have stood up for democratic values. If it is closed down, Russia will be entering a dark age

Natalie Nougayrède

01, Jan, 2015 @3:00 PM

Article image
Russia withdraws signature from international criminal court statute
Tribunal has failed to live up to hopes of international community, Moscow says day after court report on Russian annexation of Crimea

Shaun Walker in Moscow and Owen Bowcott

16, Nov, 2016 @2:14 PM

Article image
Russian human rights group has offices torched after leader's arrest
Memorial condemns arson attack on office in Ingushetia by masked men as ‘terrorist act’

Marc Bennetts in Moscow

17, Jan, 2018 @11:53 AM

Article image
Rights group’s closure is part of rapid dismantling of Russian civil society
Analysis: brief window when Russia would tolerate independent reckoning of its past appears to have closed

Andrew Roth in Moscow

28, Dec, 2021 @5:32 PM

Article image
Putin says Pussy Riot 'got what they asked for' as jailed women appeal
Russian president says arrest and conviction of feminist punk band for anti-Putin stunt in Moscow cathedral was justified

Miriam Elder in Moscow

08, Oct, 2012 @3:05 PM